You and me, we know a lot about the Holocaust—or at least we think we do. Through innumerable accounts via memoirs, textbooks, or movies, the solemn terror that sought to break the world in two has become an integrated source of fascination—fascination driven by fear, bewilderment, and sorrow of an event that we can barely even grasp in its magnitude and scope. So imagine what it must have been like for the Germans who had to grapple with its aftermath, with the weight of the world’s anger on its shoulders, as the shroud of doubt and illusion sought to suppress the truths of World War II in hopes of memories fading. This is the web of disillusionment that director Giulio Ricciarelli aimed to unwind. This is Labyrinth of Lies.
As a young lawyer yearning to tackle cases with a bit more weight than traffic violations, Johann Radmann (Alexander Fehling, “Homeland”) is given an unlikely opportunity when a journalist comes to his firm, desperation in his eyes, with a story in hand. The subject of the story is unfamiliar and impossible really, detailing that one of Germany’s prisoner camps was responsible for the death of many, maybe dozens of its captives. The camp’s name was Auschwitz, and no one had or wanted to hear about it… That is, no one except Johann, who found the implication of such grand scale murder impossible to ignore. And so, his investigation of Germany’s darkest moment falls into his lap. Of course, nothing could prepare him or his nation for the truths he would unfold in bringing his fellow countrymen to justice.
A fictional retelling of the real Frankfurt Auschwitz trials, Labyrinth of Lies takes place in Germany’s postwar stupor where citizens hoped to move on from the platoon of madness that destroyed the country, even if it meant shirking the reality of their past.
For Ricciarelli, Italian-born but German-bred, it was the embodiment of the ignorant state of bliss, which masked the demons that lay dormant within Germany’s landscape, that was integral to the emotional impact of his first feature film.
Ricciarelli explains, “In the beginning, first of all, we really needed to tell of a Germany that, on the surface, seemed like a good society: harmonious, optimistic and looking forward. And then you have to introduce this tension. I like to think of it as something underneath that bubbles up to the surface more and more. This is done through the character of Johann. Over time, he nearly loses himself in something that breaks him. In the end, all this horrible stuff is on the surface and it’s very raw and should feel very much different from the beginning. That’s basically the journey of both the character and the trial.”
To create such tension, Ricciarelli’s team had a simple and natural advantage: being German. Unlike many of Hollywood’s depictions of WWII, Labyrinth of Lies wields a cast made up almost entirely of Deutschland’s finest, and the effect of having a crew of artists embracing the torments of their own country only fed the scale of necessity of the production.
“There was a spirit on set that this was a story that this was incredibly important to tell,” remembers Riciarelli. “In my experience in working in theater in film, if you’re lucky, if the crew and everybody is working toward a higher goal, you know you’re really telling the story, not just individually; like an actor wanting to be brilliant, or me focusing on frames and pictures, or the set designer making beautiful locations—no everybody really wanted to tell the story, and that’s spirit I think has a lot to do with how the movie turned out.”
Even so, it’s in the remarkable tenacity of each hand in Ricciarelli’s film that sculpts the intense and messy psychology of Johann’s journey. Working with cinematographers Martin Langer and Roman Osin, Labyrinth embodied, at once, the dreamy, yet stifling grimness of Germany on screen. But it was really editor Andrea Mertens, who had a keen sense of Johann’s increasingly tumultuous idea of justice, who pushed Ricciarelli’s vision to new heights.
“[Andrea Mertens and I] were always basically aiming for simplicity, but with a heavy piece like this, it’s almost like a piece of music. It’s always a question of how long do you play every note. If you have a lot of heavy scenes, you need the air to breathe. At the same time, we were very careful of that. You don’t want it to be too heavy. One thing that happened in editing, in the script we had a lot of amazing amount of so-called smart sentences that ended the scenes. Like one character would always say something so smart, and we were so proud of that. But in the editing room we basically threw it all out because it wasn’t as strong—we wanted the scenes to end on a raw note, on tension. If two people fight and one person says a really smart thing, the whole thing dissolves, the tension is gone, and we needed to keep that,” says Ricciarelli.
More important than the aesthetics and Fehling’s intellectual and emotional dedication to the role of Johann—which was a composite of the three actual prosecutors from the case—is the unquestionable universality of Labyrinth’s message; that is, the willingness or unwillingness to face what we have done and what we continue to do as a collective species. Time and place become trivial when the lessons we learn are repeated and constantly forgotten or misplaced.
Ricciarelli explains, “I think the theme that we have—the power of the individual; the power of the truth; the power of individuals standing up for what is right—that is an unusually universal thing. It’s interesting, because there’s a question that always comes up in Q&As and its ‘Do you really believe in the power of the individual?’ and I always say, ‘Well, what else is there but the power of the individual?’ Life, society, and culture are made up of individual efforts. We always felt that this power of the individual is a timeless thing.”
LABYRINTH OF LIES opens at the Laemmle Royal in LA & select theaters in NY Wednesday, Sept. 30th.
Presented by Sony Pictures Classics with the support of the Goethe-Institut Los Angeles.